“Can you help me?”
A common enough question in the course of my workday as a college mailman. Asked by the old and the young alike, but mostly the young. And I am generally in a well enough mood to reply Yes, I certainly can help you, even if I am generally not in a well enough mood to be excited about the prospect. Because if there is one thing I’ve learned in my long and storied career of postal delivery to a bunch of 18-21 year-olds, it’s that they often need a lot of help. A LOT.
So, just a bit ago—“Can you help me?”
Young lady, nineteen-ish. I pegged her as a junior. Not because I knew anything at all about her, but because I’ve been here long enough to be able to guess such things with a modicum of accuracy. It was the way she dressed—pajama bottoms and a raggedy sweatshirt, which told me she’d been here long enough to not care anymore but no so long that she understood it just may be time to start growing up a little—and the way she addressed me—in the eye. She’d laid the envelope, pen, and stamp on the counter in front of her. When I walked up, she was staring at all three as if they were all pieces to some exotic puzzle.
I asked what sort of help she needed, which could have been anything from needing a zip code to how much postage was needed to mail something to China. But no, neither of those.
Instead, she said, “I don’t know how to mail this.”
“Just fill it out,” I told her. “I’ll mail it for you when you’re done.”
“No. I mean, I don’t know . . . how.”
“How to what?”
“You know. Like, fill this out.”
She pointed to the envelope and stared at it. I stared at it, too. Because I had no idea what she was talking about.
“You mean,” I asked, “you don’t know how to address an envelope?”
“You mean, No, that’s not it? Or do you mean, No, I don’t know how to address an envelope?”
Now she looked at me. Her brow scrunched. I got the image of her seated in some classroom desk, trying to split the atom.
“I don’t know how to address an envelope,” she said.
I’ll be honest—it took me a while. Not to show her how to address an envelope (which, as it turned out, took much, much longer than a while, took what felt like an eternity), but for what this young woman told me to finally sink in. She really didn’t know how to address an envelope. Had no idea where to put the stamp, where to write her home address (it was a card, she said, to her mother) and not only where to write the return address, but what a return address was.
Nineteen years old. Junior in college. I can assume this young lady was bright, or else she wouldn’t be in college. And resourceful. And driven. Capable, too—she whipped out her iPhone and danced through so many apps to find her mother’s address that it nearly gave me a seizure. But when it came to something as commonplace as sending a letter? Nothing.
“Nobody sends letters anymore,” she told me. “It’s so 1800s.”
She finished her envelope and affixed the stamp (after being told where that went, too). I had to sit down for a bit afterward. My head was killing me.
Now I’m thinking:
Is this really where we’ve come? Have we really raised a generation of children who are so dependent upon technology that anything without a button is an unsolvable mystery?
But there’s something more as well, something far worse. In our instant world of texts and emails and Facebook posts and tweets, that poor girl has missed out on one of the true pleasures of life. She has never sat at a quiet desk with paper and pen to write a letter. She has never pondered over the words that have leaked through her hand and fingers, never slowed enough to find the rhythm of her words and her heart. She has never felt the trepidation of folding those words (and her heart) into thirds and stuffing them in an envelope sealed with her own saliva—her own DNA—and placing it in a mailbox. Never worried that her letter maybe wouldn’t get to where it was meant to go. Never felt the exhilaration of finding a sealed reply waiting for her days or weeks later.
Give me the new, the world says. Give me the shiny and the bright. I say take it. I’ll keep my paper and pen.
Let’s start over.
Growing up, there was a cornfield across from my house. On the other side of that was the railroad track that cuts through town. The train still comes through twice a day. More, if the freight is good. I remember standing on my front porch as those trains rolled through, staring at the open doors on all those empty container cars, wondering where that train was going. How long it would take to get there. How easy it would be to hop on.
I wanted to see the world. Chuck it all. Run away. I wanted to leave home and see the country.
Never happened, of course. But it did for Allison Vesterfelt. She left her home in Portland at age 26 with a friend, some bags, and a single plan—to visit all 50 states. The chronicle of her adventure (and that’s what it turned out to be) is found in her book, Packing Light.
Ally’s book caught me. She tells her story with a refreshing honesty, including just how frightening it can be to do something extraordinary. Imagine leaving everything behind—your job, your home, your family—and lighting out into the territory. Thrilling? Yes. Scary? Absolutely.
And yet Ally did it anyway, and on the other side found blessings that will comfort her for the rest of her life. That, really, is what this book is about—the lessons she learned along the way.
Things like embracing the unexpected. Changing your expectations. Losing your way. Choosing your path. Hers is a reminder that the great and mighty More a lot of us want in life really won’t bring us happiness. Most times, the peace we crave comes in having less.
“Knowing how valuable you are,” she writes, “and acknowledging your tiny role in a larger story is a difficult balance to strike. It’s easy to see one or the other, but it’s difficult to hang on to both at the same time. It stretches us, like a kid reaching for the next rung of a monkey bar, until eventually we find our arms stretched out wide.”
To me, that’s the best part of what Ally accomplished. Like all adventures, she went looking for the world and found herself.
Packing Light is a great read, and I highly recommend it. To learn more, visit the Packing Light page on Amazon.
A thousand words sounds like a lot more than it really is. It’s just about two double-spaced pages or one single-spaced, depending upon the amount of dialogue or length of paragraphs.
It’s also my daily writing quota. A thousand words a day, seven days a week. Doesn’t matter if that thousand words is a blog post or a chapter in a book or a magazine article. Doesn’t matter if it’s trash. Because it’s still writing, and that’s what matters.
It seems pretty absurd to state that a writer is a person who writes, but it’s a concept I can just as easily let go of as grasp. It doesn’t take much for me to read about writing and think I’m writing, or go to Staples and hang out with the notebooks and pens and call myself a writer. But it doesn’t work that way.
Because a writer writes.
So it’s a thousand words for me. Every day. Period. Because I need that discipline. That reminder. But like I said—that sounds like a lot more than it really is.
The thing is this:
There are days when those words gush forth from that mysterious place inside me like water from a fire hose. When I have long hours to sit and ponder and sink into my desk. When the sun falls through open windows and warms my room and heaven itself pours buckets of inspiration over my head.
Those days are rare. Exceedingly so.
More often than not those thousand words are stretched out from around six in the morning until one the next morning. Rather than gushing from me, they have to be cajoled and, in come cases, dragged into the light. Most come in those precious few minutes between one thing at work and another or between dinner and second grade homework. They come when I sink myself into my desk not out of comfort, but exhaustion. When the moon shines against draped and curtained windows and cools my room. When inspiration comes in slow drips like sap from a tree.
That’s the norm, whether you’re working on your fifth novel or your fifth blog post. Which is why your decision shouldn’t be I want to be a successful writer or I want to be published, it should be this and this alone:
I am going to write.
The decision to write isn’t like a New Years resolution. It’s a daily choice. A matter of the will rather than circumstance. Because trust me, once that choice is made the universe itself will align against you in an all-out attempt to keep you from doing just that. There will be appointments and chores and Things To Do. There will be children tugging at your sleeve and spouses tugging at your ear. There will be jobs and responsibilities, dusty tables and shelves, and a dishwasher that just has to be emptied.
You’ll be tempted to think, If I do those things and help those people, then I can sit and write.
Don’t fall for that. It doesn’t work. It doesn’t work because there will always be things to do and people to help.
If writing teaches you nothing else, it will teach you this: sometimes you have to be selfish. Your family won’t understand and neither will your friends, and that’s okay. It comes with the territory. At its core writing is a lonely task steeped in irony—in order to share yourself with the world, you must at times remove yourself from it.
Though my workdays are normally filled with all the commotion and stress that a thousand college students can generate, the days between June and mid-August are mine alone to enjoy. It’s only slightly ironic and more than a little unexpected to me that summer break means even more to me now than it did when I was in school, but it’s true. Never let it be said that a little separation between yourself and others is a bad thing.
Despite the fact I have plenty to keep myself busy, I also have plenty of time to myself. Time that will be spent writing. Which is what I tried to do just a bit ago, and with unfortunate results.
I had just started typing when the buzzing began. First in one ear and then the other and then back again. My right thumb punched downward on the space bar and trampolined my hand upward, waving through the air.
“Stupid fly,” I muttered.
The buzzing returned, and this time the fly actually bounced itself off my head. More waving. More missing. Then the creature circled around and landed right on top of my computer screen, staring at me.
Black, juicy one. Hairy legs and monstrous eyes. And a wingspan that seemed almost unnatural.
Where it had been and how it had gotten into my office escaped me, and I really didn’t care. All that mattered was that I went back to work. I shooed it away and went back to my typing.
Against my head again.
I wheeled my chair around and swiped at it, missing the fly but not the stack of books on the opposite table, all of which tumbled to the floor.
“Dang it, you come back HERE!,” I yelled. “I’m gonna KILL YOU!!”
I roamed around my office for the next five minutes. Found nothing, of course. No buzzing, and no kamikaze attacks. So I sat back down and started writing. Four paragraphs later,
And then after that SMACK!, it stuck. To my head. And I swear, I swear to you, that fly made a beeline toward my ear. I was convinced it was going to burrow in and eat my brain.
I jumped up, slapping at my head and flailing my arms in every direction. The fly somehow managed to retreat back to whatever hell it came from and left me alone. For the moment.
But I knew it would be back. Oh yes, I knew. Which is why I put on my cowboy hat (to prevent any future burrowing) and started to fake type.
Two minutes later, buzzing again. And just at that moment I transformed myself into some strange Jedi/Mr. Miyagi/redneck hybrid, sliced through the air with an open palm—
The fly tumbled backward through the air and crashed against the far wall.
That was five minutes ago.
I’m back at my computer now. Order has been restored. But now I’m suffering through the fits and stops of trying to write, because every sentence I’m trying to type is interrupted by more buzzing.
The fly is still alive, though just barely.
It managed to right itself a bit ago by flopping back onto its legs, but it can’t do much else. Every attempt to take to flight has been both paltry and meaningless.
And now I feel guilty.
There are certain religious adherents who would say I sinned a bit ago, that every creature is worthy of respect and life and that by denying those things to them I deny them to myself. Others would say the sin was letting both haste and anger lead me to do something I now regret.
I suppose a sort of atonement is called for now, though I’m not sure what the proper course of action is. Should I walk over and euthanize it with my boot. Or should I try to nurse it back to health with small tweezers and bits of rancid meat? I’m not sure.
I am sure of this, though. We can try to model our lives to the Good, to walk straight and never wander, to be our very best selves. And sometimes that will work. But who we truly are deep down in our broken souls will always be there, ready in an instant to bare its teeth.
That is, I suppose, why we are all three people in one—there’s the person we want to be, the person we are, and the person who must daily choose which way to lean.
Yesterday morning I left the comfort and security of my home town and drove to the bustling metropolis of Richmond, Virginia. The purpose of my visit was an interview on WTVR Channel 6′s Virginia This Morning. I was a nervous wreck, but the folks couldn’t have been nicer.
Today marks the publication for my newest novel, When Mockingbirds Sing.
“Pub. Day” is always a pretty big deal in a writer’s life. It’s the culmination of a lot of work, a lot of time, and—in my case—a lot of prayer. Now it’s time to release it to the world. Treat yourself to a copy, won’t you?
You can find it at your local bookstore in the Christian Fiction section, or with a few clicks one of these fine online retailers will send it to your home or your e-reader:
and Walmart (or as it’s known in Mattingly, the SuperMart)
There are also some giveaways around the interwebs this week. Katdish is giving away a copy that I’ll sign for you personally, and I’ll try my best to post all the links on my Facebook Author Page.
Karen Spears Zacharias is one of my favorite people in the world.
Though I’m much more comfortable in front of a page than in front of a camera, I thought I’d do something a little different for the blog today.
I’ve heard there is always a little truth in every work of fiction. That goes for every book I write, but my next one maybe especially. There’s a personal story behind When Mockingbirds Sing. This is it:
Here’s the thing about writing a book—it’s mostly long and lonely process. Don’t get me wrong, writing is what I do. It’s what I love. And aside from spitting watermelon seeds and going to right field on a curve ball, it’s pretty much the only thing I think I can do well.
And it’s worth it. All that long loneliness, I mean. Because if all goes well, at the end of all that sitting down and scribbling out and editing and cutting and shaping is a story you’re proud to share. A story that will entertain you and inspire you. A story that might even make you a little uncomfortable, albeit in a good way.
That’s what has happened with my next novel, When Mockingbirds Sing.
We’re just over a month away from publication. As exciting as the next weeks will be, they also promise to be not unlike all the months spent writing. They’ll be long, no doubt. But maybe not so lonely.
We’re putting together a launch team for When Mockingbirds Sing—people willing to roll up their sleeves and help spread word about the book. And I’m hoping one of those people will be you.
Here’s the deal in a nutshell:
I’ll have the good folks at Thomas Nelson send you an e-book (if you don’t have an e-reader, they can get you a printed copy). In return, you agree to spread word of When Mockingbirds Sing during the week of June 11. Have a blog? Write a post about the book or set up an interview with me. Into social media? Put something on Facebook, Twitter, or Goodreads. Post a review on Amazon or Barnes & Noble. Tell your family, your friends, the folks at church, your neighbors. We may be living in an internet world, but when it comes to books, the old word of mouth still rules.
Easy peasy, right? Not fancy at all, but really kind of cool.
You can find more information about When Mockingbirds Sing by clicking on the “Coming Soon!” tab at the top of my web page.
If you’ve been reading this blog very long, what you can expect from my books is much of what you can find here—stories of people trying to find their way and trying to make sense of what sometimes feels like a senseless world. Ordinary people like you and me thrust into an extraordinary situation. And though I don’t often speak of my own work one way or another, I’ll say just this once that When Mockingbirds Sing will move you.
Still on the fence? You can read the first three chapters right now. Just click Here When Mockingbirds Sing
If you’d like to throw your name in the hat for consideration, click on the “Contact” tab in the header bar above. Shoot me a message about what you’d be willing to do. Be creative. Think outside the box. We’ll be taking submissions from now until Monday morning. After that, I’ll sort through all of the messages, choose the best, most awesome ones, and contact the winners.
And as always, Dear Reader, I say thank you.
It was my wife—God bless her—who said I was insane. And not only was I insane, but probably all the people in the world who called themselves writers were too. Certifiable. In need of round the clock psychological care and Thorazine milkshakes.
It was the pens, you see. She was going to the store, and I asked her to pick me up some pens. In my wife’s defense, I didn’t specify what sort of pens. And in my defense, I didn’t think I had to. We’ve been married for fifteen years. She’s seen me write before.
But she brought home black pens. I thought it was a joke at first. I even laughed. My wife didn’t call me insane then, but I bet the thought had crossed her mind.
Blue pens, I told her. I needed blue pens. Because blue ink produced the best words and black ink undermined creativity and the flow of artistic expression. How could anyone not know that? That’s when the insane comment was voiced. Jokingly, of course. Maybe half-jokingly. Which was followed by this:
“The problem isn’t black pens, it’s that you can’t tell the difference between what you want and what you need.”
Of course I disagreed. It’s a pride thing. But as the day wore on and I kept staring at my pack of black pens, I began to see she was right. As a writer, I don’t really have needs and wants. I just have needs.In the beginning there is rarely confusion between the two. When we decide we want to be writers, we just want to write. Life is simple because what we want is exactly what we need. We’re like babies then. And like babies, we believe the world to be both magical and ours.
But then we grow up and decide to get serious about writing. That’s when we realize the world isn’t ours to have as much as it is ours to borrow, and what was once magical can often become downright scary.
Trust me. I was there. Still am, too.
It starts out with needing to tell a story and then evolves into wanting to be published. Then from wanting to be published to needing an agent. It wasn’t that long ago that I told myself if I could only catch Rachelle Gardner’s attention, if she would only be my agent, then I would be a writer. That’s what I needed.
When that happened, I thought I needed a publisher, and when that happened I thought I needed a multi-book contract, and when that happened I thought I needed a bigger multi-book contract, and then somewhere in there my wife called me insane. Because as it turns out, those weren’t needs at all.
There are lessons that can be learned by heeding the experiences of others and lessons that can only be learned through one’s own failure. I’m pretty sure what I’m about to say falls under the latter, but I’m going to say it anyway:
If you are a writer and if you are reading this, you already have the essentials of success. The great secret is that the agents and the publishers and the book deals are just wants. Sure, you should go for them. Shoot for the moon. Dream big. Have faith. But know that being denied a want isn’t nearly as bad as failing to meet a need. Thankfully, as writers our needs are few.
We need a story to tell and a longing to tell that story in the best way possible. We need someone to tell that story to. And we need a determination to get up just one more time than we fall down.
That’s it. Meet those needs, and the wants will come. That’s not to say we’ll never be called insane, even if black ink makes the same words as blue ink. We’re writers after all. We don’t have to make sense all the time. Our hearts are bowed toward the hidden lands.
What do you want? What do you need?
“I dont’ ask writers about their work habits. I really don’t care. Joyce Carol Oates says somewhere that when writers ask each other what time they start working and when they finish and how much time they take for lunch, they’re actually trying to find out ‘Is he as crazy as I am?’ I don’t need that question answered.” — Philip Roth